The Hunchback of Notre Dame (U)
Directed by: Gary Trousdale, Kirk Wise
Starring: Demi Moore, Jason Alexander and Mary Kay
Running time: 91 min
A deformed bellringer must assert his independence from a vicious government minister in order to help his friend, a gypsy dancing girl.
Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre-Dame finally gets a Blu-Ray release!
by Laura Hornack
It was never meant to be Disney’s black sheep, yet somehow, “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame” is often disregarded when people list their Top Ten’s – which is too bad, because the 1996 retelling of Victor Hugo’s “Notre-Dame de Paris” offers an amazingly crafted ninety minutes during which phenomenal music, multi-layered characters, and moral values all mix up into a daring masterpiece without equal.
The movie tells the story of Quasimodo, the deformed bell ringer of Notre-Dame, who is forced to live up in the cathedral’s bell tower since his involuntary guardian, Claude Frollo, thinks him unfit for the public. Judge and Minister (and de facto ruler) of Paris, Frollo’s life goal is to free the city of gypsies, a profession that makes him equally hated and feared by the public. When on the 6th of January, the day of The Feast of Fools, Quasimodo disobeys Frollo and dares to sneak outside to participate in the spectacle, he kicks off a series of dramatic events, but, as it is the law with Disney, to a happy end. Before such end is reached though, the viewer witnesses a list of topics incredibly uncommon for what was (rather falsely) advertised to be a movie for kids and kids only; attempted infanticide, genocide in process, various attempts of murder, religious bigotry, and sexual frustration.
The character chosen from the novel (due to pacing issues, some were cut out or heavily modified) were modeled to make their positions clearer; Quasimodo is neither deaf nor dimwitted, Captain Phoebus is not an arrogant womanizer, but a true-hearted soldier who needs a little push into the right direction. The most interesting choice of character variation is the one of Claude Frollo. Disney took the book’s version and split it into two entirely different persons – the archdeacon, Frollo’s original profession, is now the judge’s archenemy, representing the kindness and love that is absent in Disney’s Frollo who is driven by his hate against gypsies and mad devotion to act in God’s name, ever-worried about his immortal soul (the very reason he takes in Quasimodo in the first place as he is responsible for his mother’s death).
Esmeralda, a rather naïve fifteen-year-old in the book, is now a self-confident, cool and pugilistic woman who’d rather take on any foe instead of letting injustice prevail. Not once is she a damsel in distress, and that is a refreshing change to all the run-of-the-mine princesses. (Side note: her animal sidekick Djali the goat was taken directly from the novel and, unlike the gargoyles, was –not- was not an addition by Disney).
Now, the gargoyles… I find them annoying, but I see the necessity for a comic relief; and picturing them as figments of Quasimodo’s imagination, who in twenty years had no real friends to talk to, makes them more bearable. The fact that they have some of the darkest jokes makes me not despise them altogether.
The music, during the whole film, is spectacular, in my opinion the best Disney soundtrack ever to be made, the opening number alone is outstanding and sets the note for the tale that is to follow. Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz bring us a score that ranges from jolly and hopeful to dark and damned within seconds, a special highlight being the “Heaven’s Light/Hellfire” sequence, which starts out as a warm confession of Quasimodo’s adoration towards Esmeralda, only to dive into Frollo’s obsessive lust (which obviously clashes with his hate for her people) for the very same. Although the lyrics might not be too catchy, they’re certainly deep and allow the viewer an insight into the characters via songs unlike any other method ever could, vividly coloring the hopes, dreams, desires, and abysses of each of the figures. In addition to the score are the remarkable performances which the voice actors deliver, basically the cherry on top of the cake that is this film’s music. With Tony Jay leading the way as the self-righteous and ruthless Frollo, whose grandiose singing performance will make your skin crawl, Tom Hulce portrays a shy yet strong Quasimodo whose positive attitude and sometimes naivety just melts your heart, Demi Moore gives Esmeralda the sassy yet sensual tone that makes her character so great. Kevin Kline as Phoebus displays the perfect mix of dry wit and cockiness that makes him a likable guy – his role was a balancing act, trying not to make him too much of a stereotype soldier/Prince Charming for which Esmeralda would never have fallen.
The animation is top notch, incredibly detailed shading and fluent, while this is also the first movie to have computer-generated crowd scenes, but what really leaves you breathless is the perfect depiction of 15th century France, especially the impressive cathedral of Notre-Dame herself, which has been drawn according to scale and detail after the animators spent weeks in Paris visiting the real thing – and this dedication simply shows.
There have been a lot of complaints about the rating (which was and still is “G”), which is understandable in a way, yet I do not understand how parents let their youngsters watch movies they don’t know anything about – simply slapping the label “Disney” on something should not stand for silly entertainment, but great stories, heroes to root for and identify with, and villains to despise or pity, all of which “Hunchback” delivers. I doubt that today it would have gotten any less than a PG-13 rating, something this movie clearly does not need.
If you’re a parent, you should know what your child is able to watch and comprehend, I don’t think a five-year-old gets any genocide related comments or most of the adult themes. But there is surely frightening imagery, the giant faceless red monks chanting in Latin during “Hellfire”, or Esmeralda tied to a stake which is on fire, and that might scare the younger ones. Therefore I’d recommend watching it with your kids, as I can promise you won’t get bored.
The Blu-Ray version which comes out on the 12th also contains (next to the extras already shown on the DVD) the sequel which I will only mention for completion’s sake – it is otherwise not worth watching and I would not recommend it. A little tip for those who enjoy watching movies in other languages as well, try French. I guarantee you that their version of “Hellfire” will make the English one sound almost virtuous.
5 nerds out of 5 for the movie and a 4.5 nerds out of 5 for the Blu-Ray.